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HUSTLER, THE(director/writer: Robert Rossen; screenwriters: Sidney Carroll/from the book by Walter Tevis; cinematographer: Eugene Schuftan; editor: Dede Allen; music: Kenyon Hopkins; cast: Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats), Piper Laurie (Sarah Packard), George C. Scott (Bert Gordon), Myron McCormick (Charlie Burns), Murray Hamilton (Findlay), Jake LaMotta (Bartender), Willie Mosconi (Himself); Runtime: 134; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Rossen; 20th Century Fox; 1961)
“A rich paean to the low-life pool players, dank pool halls and its pool sharks.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Rossen’s (“Lilith”/”Body and Soul”) The Hustler filmed in black and white and Cinemascope plays as a rich paean to the low-life pool players, dank pool halls and its pool sharks. It presents a gritty morality play from an era that no longer exists and tells about a brash and talented pool hustler with too much arrogance and drink in him to be a winner until he learns to deal with his character flaws and no longer be self-destructive. It takes defeat and a hellish night of soul searching and finding love with a soul mate as equally lost to return from the dead and be resurrected (which many think gives this modern film noir a religious message). It’s based on the book by Walter Tevis and written by Sidney Carroll. It should be noted that Rossen was charged by the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings as being a Red and after initially refusing to testify, he admitted to being a Communist and named names of others to save his career. The downbeat tone and bitterness in the film might be in large measure attributed to Rossen’s experience with that witch hunt hearing.

Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) drives to New York from his hometown of Oakland, California, with the dream of not just beating pool legend Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) but lording it over him. Along the way he hustles for chump change in small-time pool halls in such places as Pittsburgh. He’s accompanied on the cross-country trek by his cautious small-time tin-horn money man Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick). The hustlers enter the renown Ames Billiard Academy in Manhattan (the real deal), the mecca for the world’s best pool players and where the dapper Minnesota Fats comes in every night to play. Upon entering the joint Eddie compares it to a church. His partner says “It looks more like a morgue to me. Those tables are the slabs they lay the stiffs (on).” Eddie gets his match with Fats and after initially losing, he wins $18,000 but refuses to quit while ahead even though they played for 24 hours. He will leave losing all his money and is slumped down as a beaten man, someone who doesn’t know how to control his impulses. Spending the night at the bus terminal, he picks up Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie). The down-and-out Sarah is an aspiring writer, a part-time college student and a loose-living drunk. The two hit it off and Charlie departs while he shacks up with Sarah.

Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), a big-time, sober-minded, soul robbing gambler, observed his big game with Fats and contacts him about becoming his manager, and after turning him down Eddie learns another lesson when he gets his thumbs broken when he’s discovered hustling in a cheap waterfront poolroom. He’s detected only when his ego has him showing off to his vics how good he really is. This makes him accept Bert’s offer and we observe how he changes and becomes a pro under the guidance of the shady Bert and learns to get his act together by compromising with the Devil and learning how to be more pragmatic. On the way to the return big match with Fats, he takes on the wealthy pool playing buff Findlay (Murray Hamilton) in a high-stakes match in Louisville. But the price for that Louisville victory comes with tragic results and leaves Eddie churning inside as he learns another valuable life lesson about what’s really important. That leads to the second unforgettable match with Fats, as Eddie hopes to redeem himself and gain back his self-respect. It concludes with Eddie scoring a bittersweet victory, paying his respects to the sportsmanship of the Fat Man and then confronting his evil manager by putting his life on the line to get what he has to say off his chest.

Martin Scorsese made a sequel in 1986, The Color of Money, where Newman revisits his Fast Eddie character and this time comes away with an Oscar (which he deserved but didn’t get for The Hustler and not for this inferior version).

The Hustler is memorable for the seedy dark mood it casts, its richly developed characterizations, the brilliantly choreographed pool hall matches (Newman and Gleason were aided in the difficult shots by the world pool champion Willie Mosconi), the great performances by Newman and Gleason, and the equally great performances by the talented supporting cast of Scott, Laurie, McCormick and Hamilton.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”